‘Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography’ by Jill Roe

569 p. plus notes, 2008

(4.5 /5)

Miles Franklin, to the extent that she is known at all today, is  probably most famous for the film of her book My Brilliant Career and for the Miles Franklin literary award that bears her name.  Jill Roe has been working on Miles Franklin for many years and this long biography- all 700 odd pages of it including notes-  will probably be the definitive biography for many years.

The first thing to notice is the title: Stella Miles Franklin.  The writer we know as Miles Franklin was called by her first name, Stella, by her family and friends.  Although in the body of the text Roe calls her “Miles”, the title clearly marks out that this is not a literary biography alone but an examination of her life in its many facets: as daughter and sister, as labour activist,  office worker and friend- as well as writer.

The second thing to notice is how little of the book – the first hundred odd pages only- deals with the writing and publication of ‘My Brilliant Career’, for which she is probably best known today.  Once I turned to Part II of the book, I wondered how on earth Roe was going to sustain this biography for the succeeding 450 pages.   She did it largely by following Miles’ career across the span of her life:  in America as a women’s labour organizer between 1906- 1915,   then following Miles to England where she worked in a stultifying job as admin support for a Housing reform authority, nursed in the Balkans during World War I, moved back and forth between Australia and UK before finally returning to Australia in 1933 to live out her final years before her death in 1954.   I think that Roe is firmly making the point here that the whole of a life matters: as a ‘woman of certain age’ herself Roe is not content to shove Franklin’s  later years into a perfunctory final chapter before dispatching her unceremoniously.

Franklin’s bequest of money for the literary prize that bears her name comes almost as a surprise at the end of the biography.  Miles lived alone and frugally in the family home and it surprised many that her 8922 pound estate had been squirreled away for a literary prize awarded to “the Novel for the year which is of the highest literary merit and which must present Australian Life in any of its phases“.   Australian commentators, writers and readers have often chafed under what now seems a rather jingoistic, dated and parochial restriction, but having read this biography I am now more aware of and sympathetic to what Franklin probably hoped to encourage: a publishing industry more independent of British and American publishing houses and  an appreciation of a literature that rings true to Australian experience and consciousness.  As Roe points out,  there are no national eligibility criteria so that, conceivably, the prize could be awarded to a non-Australian writer for a work that was published outside Australia.  This, too, reflects Franklins’ priorities- that Australia and Australian life that should be rendered realistically (she was no fan of modernism or Americanization) , and that Australian writers and Australian themes take their place amongst world literature as a whole.

The bequest was not Miles Franklin’s only gift to her country.  Her other gift was a huge archive of her correspondence which eventually numbered at least 10,000 items from 1000 or more correspondents , diaries and manuscripts, collected over a lifetime.  It is here that we see her rich intellectual life in the admittedly small Australian literary culture and  her involvement with politics both in Australia and overseas.  Her association with communist writers like Jean Devanny and Katharine Susannah Prichard brought her to the attention of ASIO during the Cold War, but she was also associated through friendship, but not politics, with the uncomfortably right-wing views of P.R. Stephensen and his Australia First movement.  Miles herself was neither communist nor fascist, being more aligned with  traditional post WWI British Liberalism.  Franklin herself expressed fears of Asian immigration and over-breeding in a political stance that makes me shift uneasily today.  As Roe explains, she was a first-wave feminist, steeped in ideas of moral purity, and as part of the ‘Australian girl’ trope of the first decades of the 19th century, claimed the suffrage and Australia’s relative progressiveness as part of her own identity as an Australian working in American women’s and radical organizations in the US. Through her correspondence and hospitality she fed, and fed on, camaraderie with fellow writers and their circle- Nettie Palmer, Dymphna Cusack and Florence James,  David Miller, Katharine Susannah Prichard etc- but she was wary and defensive amongst academics and academia.

Miles Franklin’s own identity, her “essential self” as she put it, centred around being a writer and indeed, writing was work that she carried out throughout her life.  I was unaware just how much there was, often dusted off and recycled, in the hopes of publication under yet another guise or as often unsuccessful entries for a string of literary prizes.   This approach to her work partially explains her insistence on nom-de-plumes, most notably Brent of Bin Bin, but also more risible pseudonyms (like ‘William Blake’, or ‘Mr and Mrs Ogniblat L’Artsau’)  which came to be viewed more as a form of eccentricity than, as she intended, literary commercial savvy.  Much of this work remains unpublished- often for good reason as Roe suggests- although much of it attracts me as an historian:  she went ‘undercover’ as a domestic servant in the early 1900s and wrote about her experiences, and her novels set during WWII sound interesting from a social history point of view.  But much of her work sounds (admittedly only from Roe’s summaries of the unpublished manuscripts) overly melodramatic, self-referential and repetitive and perhaps best left in the archive.

Roe approaches this work more as historian than literary biographer, focussing on the act of writing and what it meant to Miles and her milieu, rather than the texts themselves.  She has mined the huge Franklin archive exhaustively (an archive now supplemented even further by later purchases) and she represents it in its entirety, perhaps to the detriment of her biography overall.  To Roe’s credit, she provided enough background information about Miles’ friends and contacts for the book to veer away from mere name-dropping, but it is a narrow line.  It is a huge, detailed biography but I found myself enjoying most the parts where Roe stepped back with her historian’s hat on to explain, for example, the demographic phenomenon of the single female in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the nuances of first-wave feminism and its approach to men and marriage.   I can’t imagine that other scholars will be able to top the detail of this biography, but their interpretations may differ.

Further reading:

The State Library of New South Wales presented an exhibition on Miles Franklin Miles Franklin: A Brilliant Career? and the exhibition catalogue, including photographs, has been archived here.

See also ANZLitLover’s review of the book, and a review by Nicole Moore in The Australian

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5 responses to “‘Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography’ by Jill Roe

  1. I’m so pleased you like this too…now, how can we get those errant judges of the MF to read it too, eh?

    • Yes, it has changed the way that I perceive the spirit of the MF prize. Actually, I remembered that you’d enjoyed this when I saw it on the library shelf which is why I borrowed it.

  2. Your comment about context is spot on, it’s what I enjoyed most about the book too. I learnt so much more about Miles and her world than I expected. Having said that if I wasn’t interested in literary biography I might not have made it. It took me three attempts to finish it and I only got there in the end because I’d recommended it to my biography reading group. Jill had the benefit of an archive that most biographers would dream of, but that too has its challenges as this detailed biography shows.

    • Three attempts! That’s dedication! I do wonder if perhaps Roe did herself a disservice by making the biography quite as long as it is. I feel as if, as a biographer, she’s making a statement that the whole of a life is important, but I do wonder if some of it could have been trimmed a little. It’s almost as if she couldn’t bear to leave correspondents out- the ‘dream’ archive, as you say, but its sheer size brings its own challenges.

  3. Pingback: Stella Miles Franklin: A Biography by Jill Roe | Stumbling Through the Past

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